Should masks be mandatory in schools? Officials face off

A Nanaimo doctor and the ­president of the union ­representing Greater Victoria teachers say with rising COVID-19 cases on Vancouver Island, it’s time to consider mandatory masks inside ­classrooms for older students.

Dr. Dave Forrest, a­n ­infectious disease and ­critical-care physician who works out of Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, said he doesn’t ­understand why masks are required in other indoor spaces where the virus can be airborne, but not in classrooms.

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Forrest said 20 students ­sitting in the same class for an hour, even while physically distanced, are sharing the same air as droplets and aerosols become airborne when students or teachers talk.

“So in my mind, this is why we have to be doing absolutely everything we can to try and prevent us from getting to the point where we have to close schools and go into lockdown,” he said.

“On the whole, I think that increased mask usage is a critical thing to try and get this under control.”

The province announced Thursday that masks are ­mandatory in indoor public spaces such as retail stores, and restaurants unless patrons are sitting at a table.

People are also required to wear masks in hallways and common spaces in office ­buildings.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said while there have been hundreds of exposure cases in B.C. schools — in which someone tested positive for the virus and entered a school — there has been relatively limited transmission connected to those exposures.

“Schools are not public, open spaces. You cannot just walk into a school,” Henry said. “We have layers of measures of protection in place in schools and like I wouldn’t wear a mask sitting in my office, we don’t expect children to wear masks sitting at their desks all day long.”

Since September, there have been six separate exposures and three clusters at schools within Island Health — including four in Nanaimo, one in Ladysmith and one at a Saanich private school this month. Dr. Sandra Allison, the Central Island’s medical health officer, said this week that despite those exposures, there have not been any COVID-19 transmissions within Island schools.

Winona Waldron, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, said she was shocked when Henry did not announce a stricter mask policy for schools.

“I thought maybe we were going to take that step to mandate masks for students and staff in school settings, particularly secondary and possibly middle school,” she said.

Waldron said she’s talked to many teachers who are “deeply concerned” about their working conditions, especially as class sizes remain the same. Some students voluntarily wear masks in class, but the onus should not be on children to decide whether to wear a mask, she said.

Waldron said she is also confused about why her daughter’s physical education classes at Vic High can continue, but high-intensity group fitness classes in gyms must cease. “It’s hard to explain to her why it’s OK at school, but not out in public.”

Saanich school district superintendent Dave Eberwein said the district is following the advice of the provincial health officer and scientific evidence that shows schools are controlled spaces with relatively limited transmission of the virus.

“There doesn’t at this time appear to be a need for increased mask-wearing,” he said.

Eberwein said the fact that every single COVID exposure in a school is publicly reported could create alarm for some, even though an exposure, where someone with the virus enters the school, is much different from an outbreak.

“I think because of the increasing [COVID-19] numbers in the province, there is an increased anxiety in the public overall,” he said. “I do want to stress the point that schools are extremely safe places.”

— With files from Jeff Bell

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